Below is a feature story that I would like each of you to read closely. Edit its content; dissect it. Look for things that work and things that don’t work. For class Tuesday, be prepared to criticize elements that run counter to what you know about writing feature stories. Does the writer tell you more than he shows you?
BUENOS AIRES — The man in the white uniform follows an off-white van loaded with baseball equipment to two diamonds that are a Prince Fielder home run from Estadio Parque Roca, where Team Argentina is beating Great Britain in the Davis Cup.
The cheers from inside Parque Roca fill the summer air as the six passengers hop out of the van. They pitch in and help the man in white unload the bats, a sack of baseballs, bases and other equipment and store it inside a cinder block shed.
The unloading takes 10 minutes, tops, because the man in white and his baseball league don’t have much equipment to unload.
What they do have are two diamonds that any Little Leaguer would be glad to call a home field. They are emerald and manicured, the grass groomed in the image of the better diamonds an American youngster could play on. Add a scoreboard, a concessions stand and a good drag of the infield dirt, and the fields might not look out of place in Williamsport, Pa.
“I build with this,” the man in white says in deep, heavily accented English. He holds out both hands to make his point.
The man then smiles. He’s taken pride in his handiwork. Not just pride in the two diamonds he carved out of a thicket of tall grass and weeds and this sun-hardened soil, but pride in what he’s done with baseball in Argentina.
People here refer to the man in white as the “king of baseball in Argentina,” says Lucia Garcia Labat, an accountant who works with him.
The title fits.
Yet don’t dare let Jorge Marcelo Ramia, the director of Little League Baseball Inc. for Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, hear you try to saddle him with such a regal label. He’ll politely set you straight.
“I am not the ‘king of baseball,'” Ramia says. “I am a serious worker. For me, it is the only way.”
Serious about baseball
These adjacent fields are just the starting point for the “serious” work Ramia does. He has, he says, committed himself to building baseball into a sport that Argentine boys take seriously.
It has become his full-time job, which might be the worst job in sports for a man to take on in a country where futbol — or, as an American prefers to call it, soccer — reigns.
Futbol here, always futbol.
But ask Ramia about baseball in Argentina, and he oozes optimism. He sees more on this baseball landscape than others do. He sees promise — promise of baseball finding its place in Argentine culture, perhaps filling in where futbol ends.
Not an impossible mission in Argentina, a country where a kaleidoscope of cultures intersects. Germans, Italians, Irish, Jews, Spaniards and Japanese have all come to this corner of South America and melded their heritages.
A lot of what these immigrants have brought here shows up in sports, which might signal good things ahead for professional baseball.
Yet the optimist in Ramia must sometimes make way for the realist.
“We are not a big market,” Ramia says of his homeland. “We do not have a lot of players. It is not an important quantity.”
Ramia, though, commits his time, his mind and his money to increasing the quantity.
Can he do so?
Yes, he says.
He admits, however, that his task requires putting a lot of bricks in place. He’s building baseball here from the basement up, he says. He hasn’t reached the first floor yet.
Ramia can’t point to an Argentine star in the bigs and tell kids that they can be like him. Those kids don’t see names of Argentine icons plastered everywhere. For there are no Orlando Cepedas, Albert Pujolses, Roberto Clementes, Omar Vizqueles, Minny Minosos or Pedro Martinezes whose baseball careers took root on an Argentine diamond.
Those kids that Ramia tutors know Diego Maradona, Pele, David Beckham; they don’t know “The Mick,” “The Say Hey Kid” or anybody named “Ozzie.” The history that drives baseball fans elsewhere loony is lost on Argentine boys, who find none of that history embedded in their textbooks.
For them, it’s futbol, always futbol.
It is that futbol history Ramia confronts. He has to show the boys who want to explore this American creation they call beisbol that it has a rich history of its own. They can reshape that history to include Argentina if they reach the Majors, he says.
Ramia is five years into building baseball in his homeland. He started his construction project at age 46. At the time, he didn’t know a lick about the sport. He’d spent the lion’s share of his working life around pro tennis and basketball, and nothing on his resume hinted that he might fall in love with beisbol.
But hanging out with some people who were throwing a baseball around, Ramia slipped on a glove and had somebody toss a ball to him. He caught the ball in the pocket of the glove and liked how catching the ball felt.
“I need to feel the ball again,” Ramia remembers telling himself.
Ramia was hooked. He’d become a baseball junkie.
“If you love baseball, it is like a drug,” he says. “Once you are in it, it is too difficult to get out.”
He began to read about baseball; he talked to people everywhere about baseball; he soaked up what insights into the game he could find. He found plenty.
So here Ramia is today, a 51-year-old continuing-education student of the game. He’s developed all the symptoms of a full-blown baseball addict.
“Crazy,” he calls it.
Some might substitute the word “mad” instead. For only a madman, they might reason, can see baseball pulling Argentine youngsters away from their beloved futbol.
That’s what Ramia, a baseball czar of sorts, sees happening here. He sees it clearly. He sees it in the growing number of boys and girls who enter the Little League programs he and a handful of other people have pieced together around Buenos Aires. Those boys and girls are finding things in baseball that they haven’t found in futbol.
“The question is why,” Ramia says. “The kids saw a lot of movies on baseball. The game is in their mind. They do not know how to play, but they know something about baseball.”
And they are willing to learn more.
Chasing the game
One by one, Ramia hooks another boy on baseball. One boy brings another boy until there are now 500 of them around Argentina, and the next thing Ramia knows he can field Little League teams — not just a Little League team.
They are boys — mostly boys who slept last night in poverty — who played futbol, but who have now found something exotic or cerebral about the game Ramia loves.
“In baseball,” says 15-year-old Matias, speaking through an interpreter, “you had to use your mind. You had to think more and not just follow the ball.”
Matias has been one of Ramia’s converts. He’s brought his 11-year-old brother, Pablo, to baseball as well. The brothers have been playing the game for three years, and they play it even as their peers have stuck with futbol.
They’ve wondered what Matias and Pablo like about this American import.
“For them, it is quite weird,” Matias says. “Nobody knows about beisbol.”
He confesses, too, he doesn’t know much about the game’s history. To him, Henry Aaron, Bob Gibson and Jackie Robinson might as well have been Keynesian economists in Iceland and not baseball icons. Matias plans to fill in that history; he wants to know more about baseball.
So he isn’t a junkie. Yet.
But if he continues to hang around the field, he might get hooked on baseball as Ramia got hooked on it. Matias probably started too late to harbor dreams of reaching the big leagues, but Ramia can see some boy from Argentina — maybe Pablo — migrating from his baseball programs to the Majors.
When becomes the salient question. Four or five years, Ramia says. By then, he can see 10 prospects from Argentina in the baseball pipeline.
“Without this,” he says, looking out onto the field he’s built, “you would be lucky to have one. I am just talking about Argentina. What about Chile?”
To the bigs
The pipeline to the big leagues has never run through Buenos Aires. Movies do; high fashion does; euros and tourist dollars do. But baseball, no.
It won’t run through the city without hard work — and pesos aplenty.
For the needs of baseball in Argentina are basic: gloves, balls, bats and more ballfields. The needs of baseball here are many, and $30,000 worth of U.S. dollars might address the more immediate ones.
Day after day, Ramia finds another person to help him with those needs, another patron saint — like American venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith — to chip in with baseball gear or with pesos, another boy who buys into his craziness and another reason to continue it.
“It is a difficult job in this country,” Ramia says, “because the marketing in this country is 80 percent soccer.”
Trying to compete against futbol is a problem — a significant one, Garcia says. The absence of a baseball tradition hurts, too. No tradition cuts off any reason to build more fields. People ask: Why build if no one comes?
No fields mean no places to play. No places to play keeps youngsters tied to the one sport that is available to them. Buenos Aires has no shortage of well-kept futbol fields.
But Ramia is convinced he can build tradition and more baseball fields. He’d made a proposal to government officials to take over a plot of overgrown grass at the southern edge of the city — land next door to shanties — and carve out another ballfield.
“We arrived and said, ‘We can do some things here with baseball,'” says Ramia, the man in white. “And they say, ‘OK.'”
Their “OK” later turned into a “no” when Buenos Aires decided to use the vacant land as a training camp for federal police.
“Bad news,” he says.
Not all of it was bad, because the city gave Ramia the softball field near the two diamonds he’s built. He will convert it into a third baseball field, he says. Build it, and the boys will come, he says. Teach them, and the boys will stay.
He is borrowing a bit of his message from Tinseltown. He is putting a “Field of Dreams” spin on his vision for baseball in Buenos Aires, a city of 13 million. He hasn’t had to build a diamond around any cornfields yet. He hasn’t heard any voices, either.
From diamonds near the two at Parque Roca, someday will come a Shoeless Joe Jackson, a Babe Ruth or a Cristobal Torriente. Or so Ramia hopes. When one comes, then two will come, then three, then four and then five and more … many, many more Argentines.
“It can be an explosion,” Ramia says in his best English. “We can have a quiet, serious presence.”